FPI Bulletin: The Enduring Value of the U.S.-Japanese Alliance

May 25, 2016

President Obama arrived in Japan this morning in order to attend this year’s G-7 meeting and pay a visit to Hiroshima. Amidst high-profile attacks on the value of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, President Obama’s visit provides a welcome opportunity to emphasize the strategic benefits that have ensured strong bipartisan support for the alliance for over 50 years. Japan’s high-quality Self-Defense Forces, extensive provision of bases, and continuing financial support for the U.S. presence are all justify its role as a pillar of American strategy in Asia.

Japan’s Peace Constitution and the Right of Self-Defense

Since returning to office in 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken pivotal steps to give Japan a direct role in responding to growing regional military threats. Most importantly, he has lessened the restraints associated with an expansive interpretation of Article 9 of the Japan’s occupation-era constitution, according to which the people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.”

This renunciation of war does not preclude self-defense in the event of foreign attack. Thus, Japan has long maintained sizable Self-Defense Forces (SDF). However, until last year, the Japanese government interpreted the constitution in a manner that ruled the right of collective self-defense, defined by the U.N. charter as the right of all nations to defend the victims of aggression. At great risk to his own popularity, Abe leveraged a commanding majority in the Diet to win approval of a new interpretation that authorizes collective self-defense in the face of dire threats.

Previously, the prohibition on collective self-defense presented a major impediment to U.S.-Japanese military cooperation. For example, if North Korea attacked American ships in the Sea of Japan, the Japanese SDF would not have been able to respond. Yet “Japan can now intercept North Korean ballistic missiles bound for U.S. targets and defend allied ships from North Korean submarines,” writes Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation.

The Japanese decision in favor of collective self-defense amounts to an important turning point in a relationship once defined by an American commitment to defend Japan in exchange for the right to maintain an extensive network of bases on Japanese soil. Now, Japan will also posture itself to defend American forces.

Japanese Forces and Military Spending

Alongside its new commitment to collective self-defense, the Abe government has increased the Japanese defense budget by 7 percent over the past three years, following a decade of stagnation. Planned expenditures for 2016 will amount to a record 5.05 trillion yen (~$42 billion). As a percentage of GDP, this amounts to only 1 percent, a figure that Japanese governments have rarely exceeded in the past. By contrast, while American defense spending remains just above 3 percent of GDP, it has been trending sharply downwards in recent years.

Japan’s well-equipped and highly-trained forces greatly amplify the alliance’s combat power in the Western Pacific. The SDF consists of 250,000 troops, about three-fifths of whom are in the ground forces, along with one-fifth in the air and maritime forces respectively. The maritime forces include 47 surface combatants and 18 submarines, while the air forces have more than 500 combat capable aircraft, including 200 F-15s. While the U.S. military is much larger, it permanent presence in Japan is limited, consisting of about 50,000 troops, 17 warships (including an aircraft carrier), and 120 combat aircraft. In the event of conflict, the U.S. could rush additional forces to the region, yet the advantage of already being in theater remains substantial.

An additional benefit of the alliance is that the SDF purchases its most advanced systems from the United States. From 2010-2014 it purchased an average of $1.2 billion of equipment per year. In 2011, Japan committed to spending $10 billion to purchase 42 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the most advanced plane in the American arsenal. This will help lower the cost of the F-35 for the U.S. military by increasing aggregate demand. In light of the F-35’s advanced technology, it is only available for sale to the most trusted American allies.

Japanese Funding for American Bases

Until recently, Japanese contributions to the operation and maintenance of U.S. military bases often exceeded the amount paid by the Pentagon. For 2016, the Pentagon has allocated about $2.7 billion for its installations in Japan, whereas Japan will contribute $1.7-$2.1 billion depending on exchange rates. The Pentagon will also spend about $2.7 billion on salaries and benefits for military and civilian personnel in Japan, although these individuals would be have to be paid even if they were stationed in the United States. As specified by a 1960 agreement on the status of forces (SOFA), the U.S. does not pay rent for the land or facilities at its military installations, which are now 89 in number.

In 2013, a report by the Senate Armed Services Committee “raise[d] concern about the downward trend in the amount that Japan contributes” to the maintenance of American bases. The main driver of this trend is a marked decrease over the past 25 years on the voluntary contributions Japan has made to what is known as the Facilities Improvement Program, which have fallen from over a $1 billion per year in the 1990s to about $200 million per year today. In contrast, Japan’s mandatory contribution has held constant at about $1.5 billion. That money has consistently paid the salaries of more than 20,000 Japanese nationals who work at American bases, as well as covering a substantial portion of utility expenditures.

The Strategic and Fiscal Value of Overseas Bases

American strategy focuses on preventing conflict in pivotal regions of the world, rather than waiting for the conflict to spread and affect the homeland directly. To deter conflict on the far side of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the U.S. military has invested in the unmatched capability to project power abroad. Although most power projection forces remain resident in the United States, a significant portion are stationed in theater, which not only reduces transit time, but enables far more efficient use of their capabilities.

In a recent report on the exhausting pace of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps deployments, Bryan Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) emphasized how forward-based ships “can maintain a higher operational tempo” because they don’t have to cross the ocean at both the outset and the conclusion of their missions. “This enables a forward-based ship to maintain the same level of operational presence as two or more [U.S.]-based ships,” Clark writes. In other words, a $9 billion aircraft carrier home ported in Yokosuka, Japan—current home of the USS Ronald Reagan—can spend as much time on station as two carriers based in the continental United States. Thus, Clark and others, including Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have pointed to the potential advantages of permanently home porting a second carrier in the Western Pacific, likely in Japan.

The Future of the Alliance

Tokyo and Washington share deep concerns about the growing aggressiveness and military strength of China as well as the volcanic hostility of North Korea. In his address to a joint session of Congress, Prime Minister Abe observed that the U.S. and Japan also hope to “spread our shared values around the world and have them take root: the rule of law, democracy and freedom.” In addition, the U.S. sends about $60 billion per year of exports to Japan, while Japanese firms have made more than $300 billion of direct investments in the United States.

Only those unfamiliar with U.S.-Japanese relations could suggest that we this alliance offers little value to the United States. The security, principles, and prosperity of the United States all benefit from an enduring partnership with Japan. The alliance should remain the bedrock of American diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific. 

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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